Many Greenspring residents know Verna Finley as the costume designer for the Greengspring Players’ recent musical production of “My Fair Lady.”
But what most people don’t know is that costume design is just one of Finley’s talents. Finley, who is 90 and largely confined to a wheelchair, gained fame in the 1950s as one of the first and finest foam puppet makers in the world.
“Verna is considered by most to be the ‘Grande Dame’ of soft puppets. Her creations live on and are highly sought after by both professionals and collectors. If you own a ‘Verna’ you are fortunate indeed,” said Chip Martin, a longtime friend and fan who has written about Finley on his blog.
For several years, Finley created puppets for Jeff Dunham, a ventriloquist and stand-up comedian who has been credited with reviving the art of ventriloquism, which peaked in the 1950s with Edgar Bergen and his sidekick Charlie McCarthy. In 2007, Dunham was named “America’s Favorite Comedian” by Slate.com.
FINLEY CREATED PEANUT, one of Dunham’s most popular puppets, a purple-skinned, hyperactive character that Dunham has said comes from a small Micronesian island, as well as 40 other puppet characters for well-known ventriloquists.
“Oh, I loved working with Jeff,” Finley said. “He’s whip-smart, funny and not filled with his own importance, like some performers I could name,” she said, laughing. “But, to be fair, almost all performers are interesting people. Even if you wouldn’t want them as personal friends.”
In 2003, Finley moved to Greenspring, Northern Virginia’s largest senior living community, from Florida.
“I had been living by myself and that was really boring, you know. My sister and brother-in law, Mildred and Henry Hanson, thought I would like all the activities here,” Finley said. “It’s great to be near family. My passion is traveling. When I was growing up all the borders were closed in Europe, so my sisters and I would meet every year and drive through Europe,” she said.
Finley, whose parents were missionaries from Sweden, was born in Korea in 1921. Her family moved back to Sweden when she was a young girl, and she said she always dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. She was living in Stockholm in 1947 when she was offered a job with a design house in New York City. She wasn’t in New York City for very long. She “re-met” her husband, Albert there, a young man she had met several years earlier in Copenhagen. “In 17 days, we got married, and then we moved to Bloomfield Hills in Michigan, which was a suburb of Detroit,” she said.
In the 1950s, Detroit, “the Motor City,” was thriving as a city fueled by the auto industry. At the same time, ventriloquism was becoming enormously popular, due in large part to Bergen and McCarthy’s top-rated TV and radio show, as well as other comedic ventriloquists such as Señor Wences, Paul Winchell and Shari Lewis.
“It was a good time to be in Detroit in those days. It was booming. Everyone was working, and as soon as my two boys were old enough, I got a job as a costume designer.” Finley started working for the Children’s Story Hour, a popular local program. “I was so excited and impressed with myself,” she said, laughing. At one point the show featured Muppets creator Jim Henson, and she said she became intrigued with ventriloquists and the art of making ventriloquists’ puppets.
Finley became known for her special foam puppets, because they weighed only 5 pounds, compared to many that were made of wood, and weighed 40-plus pounds.
In 1978, she and her family moved to the West Coast of Florida. “Florida really wasn’t for me, because I don’t sail, don’t play golf, so I had to do something else.” Finley kept designing puppets for community theaters, churches and schools, and she also started teaching the art of puppet-making, as well as working on cruise ships as a puppet-maker.
ONE OF THE LAST PUPPETS she made was a life-size puppet of Al Gore, for a 2004 Saturday Night Live skit. “I really wanted to stay up and see it, but I fell asleep before the show came on. Can you believe that,” she said.
Finley said she’d like to continue making hats and costumes for the Greenspring Players. “I loved doing the show, but it about wore me out, and I’m not getting any younger,” she said.
"Verna's talent is evident just from the costumes she designs for the Greenspring Players. The productions are really brought alive by her vision and creativity,” said Jessica McKay, public affairs manager for Greenspring.
Even though she can’t travel much anymore, she said she enjoys making friends at Greenspring, and hearing everyone’s life stories.
“I really love this place. I had missed the season in Florida, so it was nice to see that. And it’s amazing what people are involved in here. They are learning a language. They’re involved in politics or writing or working for the TV station here. You meet people from all walks of life. It’s a little bit like traveling,” she said.